Amidst traffic-filled streets, the `Anus and intestines centre for treatment’ stands. Probably a few blocks away, a restaurant is selling something delicious called `exploding frog legs’ and in hundreds of taxis, drivers are offering the most interesting conversations to foreign passengers. This is the Beijing `Mad About English’ has sought to discover. However, instead of getting a barrel of laughs from the mistakes of the Chinese people , it demonstrated the startling ability of the Chinese to handle the English language (with the American accent).
Right from the start. the docu was singleminded in its search for the unusual with respect to the theme of learning English, which I feel pays off. After a few greetings from starngers, an instructor raps in English to a humongous class. Over a window view of Beijing's concrete showpieces whizzing past, we hear a taxi driver learning English as he drives. Then, we enter a room where only silver-haired folks are its keen students. Though retired, they listened in class with eyes wide open as if it was their first-ever lesson in school. Several scenes later, a young doe-eyed girl, of China's pampered generation, bids farewell to her mother. She is about to enter an English learning boot camp. Also of a lot of much peculiarity value is a Western English/spelling cop `patrolling' the streets making notes of errors on signs and billboards.
We are clearly not just looking at Chinese struggling with English. Quite apparently, the documentary is seeking to understand a nation's collective fervour about the Olympics, the struggle of individuals to make themselves relevant in society and even a glimpse of what the world can expect a whole nation puts its head in one direction. While, it is apparently marketed as a comic documentary, its incisive treatment of deeper social issues is what defines the film even more. At a distant glance, it is easy to dismiss the almost mindless will of the Chinese to learn English as something very Confucian or even having a shadow of Communistic drive. But fortunately, the documentary seeks to unravel, quite reasonably, though not very profoundly, the individual motivations behind learning English. Leaving the deepest impression is Jason Yang a retired man in his 70s who wants to be a volunteer for the Olympics. Of equal impression is the little girl who braved the regimental rigours of the boot camp - she wants a better life and believes the language is her passport. While most reasons are either economic or Olympic-economics, I would have loved to hear what drove the policeman to pick up English with the New York accent!While, I was just going along with the story not really questioning why the docu picked the subjects, on hindsight, it proved to be a rather all-encompassing cross-section of China. You have the man-on-the-street cases, the grey-haired cohort, the most economically active adults at their peak, the impressionable school children (in droves, as if a mirage of China's future), the occasional oddities and even the Western/foreign characters in this `Long March'. Actually, the `evangelicalistic' boot camp could be another film altogether. I have one more to add, the `invisible hand' behind all the funny signs, labels and posters, almost like a dig on the authorities.It is also clear that `Mad about English' makes for accessible and enjoyable viewing due to its excellent production value and seasoned execution. The director Lian Pek (formerly a TV current affairs and news presenter) draws hugely from her journalistic experience in covering the subject insightfully. The visuals are spritely and the cinematography is both effective and sometimes inventive. Perhaps, it could stand as a good example of a `cross-over' film - a film for arthouse crowd that wins a reasonable commercial viewership - a nice middleground many filmmakers are trying to reach.
Written by Jeremy Sing